Simon Conder Associates was established in 1984 with offices in Suffolk and London. The practice is currently working on several residential projects and public buildings for urban and rural sites, including a swimming pool in Northamptonshire, an arts centre in Norfolk and a gallery in Sussex.
A recent English Heritage and Countryside Agency report raises concerns over the unsympathetic treatment of England's barns and other traditional farm buildings. This coincides with Simon Conder Associates' conversion of a collection of such buildings to a family dwelling in the Northamptonshire countryside.
I tend to have one favourite memory from an architect's portfolio, often a small moment, usually an early design and always a smaller building. For Gehry, it is a stained-glass rooflight in the tiny chapel of the Loyola Law School. For Scarpa, it is the high corner glass cubes in the Possagno Gallery. For Simon Conder, it is the beautiful oval glass capsule in a Primrose Hill loft. This encapsulates the elegant and unequivocal meeting of contemporary and traditional, each allowed its own space.
Private domestic jobs are often important early projects for younger practices. However, here is an architect with many thoughtful and high-quality domestic designs completed and who has won many awards; six in 2004 for the Beach House in Dungeness - including the Stephen Lawrence Prize - and now the Wood Awards Gold Award for this project, from an impressive shortlist of much larger buildings. This architect comes with a certain pedigree, and perhaps this is what the countryside needs.
The brief was a sociable London family with growingly independent teenagers wanting a retreat both for escape and for entertaining their respective friends. The canvas was a collection of three farm buildings - a large stone barn, a smaller single-storey barn and an open-sided, steel-framed shed, the composition creating interesting non-orthogonal spaces between.
The barns were in a dreadful condition, but architects spot opportunities, and Conder persuaded the client to refurbish rather than rebuild, thereby reducing programme and planning issues and also saving on VAT.
The approach is along an ordinary hedge-lined farm lane, busy with tractors and the occasional sound of cows and, across an adjacent field, trains hurtling up and down the main Edinburghto-London line.
The large barn appears first on the side of the lane, and this is the most interesting elevation of the group. With the existing stone walls most prominent, the contemporary touches are not immediately obvious. There are new large black-framed glass and iroko panels, but these are subtly inserted into deep existing openings, with an old circular hay hatch becoming a window.
Joining this comfortable composition is an incongruous but dramatic 5.5m-long narrow horizontal strip of glass. The glass is flush with the stone and the position appears quite random.
But standing in the kitchen which it serves and looking across to the adjacent field, its raison d'être unfolds as a train in the distance appears to run happily along the window sill.
From the lane you enter the yard with views across low, undulating farmland and also into the space between the two barns. Here, a simple but bold planted pond has been placed, reflecting the angles of the wall, with a bridge across linking the entrance to each building.
Conder developed the brief closely with the family.
The parents and their guests reside in the large stone barn, the teenage children and their guests across the pond in the smaller one. An, as-yet-unbuilt, swimming pool has been designed for the site of the existing steel-framed shed.
Logistically, Conder has maximised the spatial parameters created by the buildings' original functions and this works well.
In the parents' space, large barn doors become large glass walls.
The presence of the main double-height space is retained as a dramatic large living, dining and kitchen area and the bedrooms and WCs are placed within the former two-storey hayloft. The entrance is uplifting - a top-lit, two-storey space with a minimal elegant solid-oak helical stair. This is enclosed by a thin glass cylinder, providing another of Conder's striking capsule moments.
Within this basic stone enclosure, the interior is moulded and defined by a collection of floating birch-ply elements. These are carefully placed to both separate and maximise the open space.
The most prominent are the tall sleek skins running the full length of the long external walls, extending through to the first-floor rooms. The strong singular presence of these contemporary installations is countered by their reflection of thick, traditional walls, and this provides an appropriate form for the existing exposed roof trusses that extend over. At night, the edges are lit and they float in the spaces over the limestone floor.
At a practical level, essentials such as service runs, insulation and storage are neatly concealed. They are also a source of thoughtful details that contribute to the use of the spaces: panels that fold out to create bedside tables with concealed lighting; switches placed neatly behind little doors; and, in the living space, a sleek, conical, circular window and slotted light panels. All are beautifully installed, with the quality of detailing high throughout.
Apparently the architect had a gut instinct about the contractor when he turned up for his interview on a Harley Davidson.
The first-floor bedrooms in the hayloft are accessed via the helical stair and a glass-fronted bridge spanning over the entrance space. The principal bedroom is an attractive secluded retreat, with a free-standing bath and two small slot windows, one giving views from the bath across the farmland. At one end, large double doors open to a balcony overlooking the main space.
Primarily to offer increased daylight to the bedroom, the view is dramatic and also allows conversations between the two spaces.
Although the parents have the big spaces, the children have the big views from the single-storey barn with large windows facing south across fields to a village steeple. The rooms are deliberately different in feel, with the existing carcase plastered and painted white with power-floated concrete floors. This is a simple, more economical brief. Apparently the only request from the children was for a pole in the future swimming pool to climb up and throw themselves off. Oh for a brief like that.
After the detail of the parents' barn, there is inevitably a starkness to this more modest variation. However, in the central white bathroom a careful interlocking of bath and vanity top with two slot windows that allow in touches of sunlight and countryside views results in a delightful little composition.
Careful composition is prevalent throughout the interior, with an assured and interesting mix of openings and shapes. There is a singularity of design approach and consistency of detail, with an overriding sense of practicality and economy that does not compromise the elegance of the design. One example of this is the use of standard galvanised sections and opening wood panels for ventilation to create nicely detailed low-cost windows. This project also clearly illustrates the absolute importance of builders to the architect to realise the design aspirations, with a high level of craftsmanship displayed by Herbert Austin and his subcontractors.
I have seen this consistency threading through Scarpa's work, except where he often chose to dramatically extrude new external elements out from the old fabric. Here there is more restraint - a clear separation between the natural rustic countryside and the sophisticated interior.
More common across mainland Europe, projects like this show the contemporary and traditional can forge a continuum.
If barns are now more at risk than any other historic building, this conversion should be cited as a sensitive, exemplary piece.